Mark Galli, newly converted Catholic, is ‘part of the family’ now

Mark Galli, renowned Christian journalist, editor and author, converts to Catholicism

In some sense, Mark Galli was almost destined to be Catholic; God just brought him there in a very roundabout and gradual way.

Baptized Catholic as a boy at the instigation of his grandmother, Galli remembers his first confession. He received First Communion as well, though he has no memory of it (“I have pictures of it,” Galli said.) And on Sept. 13, at the age of 68, Galli was confirmed as the newest member of the Catholic Church at the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus in Joliet, Illinois. 

Though only eleven days a Catholic when the Denver Catholic interviewed him, Galli brings a wealth of knowledge and a lifetime of faith to the Church with him. 

A lifelong Christian, Galli was a member of Presbyterian and Anglican churches in the past and served as a pastor for 10 years in the former. Galli also recently retired from an illustrious 30-year career as a Christian journalist and writer. He’s authored several books and still writes regularly for his blog, The Galli Report. Among the various publications he’s worked for is Christianity Today, which he served as editor-in-chief of for seven years.

“The first magazine I worked for was Leadership, which is a magazine for pastors,” Galli told the Denver Catholic. “And I knew that we had some Catholic priests read us because it was basically principles on how to pastor a congregation. The next magazine I worked for was Christian History. It was a magazine that covered all of Christian history.”

Though the seeds for his conversion were technically (even spiritually) already planted as a young boy when receiving the sacraments, those seeds slowly began to be sowed during Galli’s stint with Christian History. In 1994, he was editing an issue devoted to St. Francis of Assisi and remembers being taken aback by this saint and his resolute faith.

Around that same time, Galli also became aware of Pope St. John Paul’s II encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which had just been released. While reading through the encyclical and feeding his lifelong interest in theology, something about both St. Francis of Assisi and John Paul II struck Galli.

“The same Church has produced this radical, personal devotion and lifestyle to this great mind,” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘The same Church produced both of these; I need to know more about this.’ It was at that point I started on and off making my way toward Catholicism in a more serious way.”

‘Because Jesus commanded it’

Despite the religious influence in his life early on, religion wasn’t a big part of Galli’s initial upbringing. However, a chance encounter with a TV pastor by his mother when he was 13 changed all that.

“My mother had an evangelical conversion watching Billy Graham on TV,” Galli said. “When he turned to the TV camera and said, ‘you at home that want to accept Christ can get on your knees,’ she did. And in my family, if my mother really got into something, we all got into it.”

From that point on, Galli became immersed in the world of evangelicalism. He and his family began to attend an evangelical church near Mount Hernon in California and study the bible every night after dinner. Galli answered an altar call to give his life to Christ and remained steadfast in his faith growing up.

Chesterton has that famous quote, ‘To be deep into history is to be Catholic. And there’s some truth to that, because you get in there and you begin to see the both the devotion and the wisdom of the church before the Reformation in ways you hadn’t before.”

Mark Galli

A 2015 Pew survey showed that 34 percent of American adults practice a different religious tradition than the one they were raised in. It’s also no secret that Catholics are leaving the Church in droves to join evangelical or protestant churches — congregations that still preach the Gospel but are generally more lenient on those difficult teachings of the Church. In fact, according the same survey, for every Catholic convert who enters the Church, six Catholics leave. 

The reasons people convert to Catholicism are many. For Galli, it was the rich history of the Church and the gradual realization that the Catholic Church truly is what it claims to be: the one true Church that Christ himself founded.

“Chesterton has that famous quote, ‘To be deep into history is to be Catholic,’” Galli said. “And there’s some truth to that, because you get in there and you begin to see the both the devotion and the wisdom of the church before the Reformation in ways you hadn’t before.”

For many converts, there are often certain doctrines of the Catholic faith that are more difficult to reconcile with Evangelical or Protestant traditions — the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary or intercessory prayers to saints, for example. Early on in Galli’s life, he had an experience with a Sunday school teacher that helped to disarm the notion of simply rejecting some of these teachings because he didn’t understand them.

“I distinctly remember this one Sunday school lesson where the teacher read some passage in which Jesus commands his disciples to do something,” Galli recalled. “I don’t remember the passage, but I remember the teacher saying, ‘why should we listen to what Jesus says here?’ And the class came up with … all these pragmatic reasons why we should do this. And he kept on saying ‘no.’ Finally, we said, ‘Well, what?’ And he said, ‘We should do it because Jesus commanded it.’

“That informed my approach to scripture from then on and it just became cemented in me that scripture was the word of God. It was the word of Jesus. And my job was to figure out how to understand it and then put it into my life as I could.”

Learning the ropes

Alight by the first fervor that comes with conversion, Galli is like a sponge soaking up all that the Catholic Church has to teach. It comes with a bit of a learning curve, he admits, but he’s confident this is where the Lord wants him to be, even if friends, family and his readers and followers don’t fully understand it. 

“I can tell my family, my children especially, are a little mystified, like, ‘oh, what’s dad doing now?’” he said. “Two people have told me I’m going to hell because of this. But pretty much everyone else, and this would be dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of people, basically said, ‘awesome!’ It’s an interesting time in church history for that to happen.”

Now, Galli can experience the fullness of the universal Church and participate in the Sacred Liturgy, no matter where in the world he may find himself. While visiting family in Denver in late September, Galli went to morning Mass at the Cathedral on the feast day of Padre Pio. Afterwards, he was given a Padre Pio prayer card and medal – and wasn’t quite sure to make of them.

“I picked it up and I opened it in my car, and I thought, ‘Well, a prayer card I get, you turn it over and you say the prayer. But what am I supposed to do this medal?’” he said with a laugh. “It’s even things like that. Are these on a chain or is there a chain with a bunch of medals on it? Or do I wear it on the wrist? What do I do with this thing?”

He lets out a hearty chuckle and smiles. “I’m part of the family, but man, I have a lot to learn.” 

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.